CALGARY—Federal political scandals spring from many sources — Canada’s political system has seen firestorms ignited over telegrams and canned tuna, among other things.
Political pressure and prosecutorial independence are at the centre of the latest scandal, which saw a new chapter unfold Wednesday as Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion issued his findings on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s actions in the SNC-Lavalin controversy.
Dion found Prime Minister Justin Trudeau broke the ethics law by pressuring former attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould to intervene in a prosecution to spare SNC-Lavalin a criminal conviction.
With about two months to go before this year’s federal election, scrutiny of Trudeau’s government is mounting. And while the ethics commissioner’s finding has no sanction, it could have consequences at the ballot box.
Government scandals don’t always stick to the people at the top, according to University of Calgary political scientist Melanee Thomas. But it’s difficult for Trudeau to stay above the fray when this is the second time he’s been found to have personally breached the ethics law. The first was Trudeau’s ethical lapse in accepting a private Christmas 2016 vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas, also deemed a breach of the law.
“As long as the prime minister, premier, party leader can credibly say, ‘I didn’t know,’ it’s not supposed to hit them,” Thomas says.
The question now, she notes, is how voter behaviour might or might not change as a result.
Some of Canada’s government scandals linger in public memory, from Shawinigate to the sponsorship scandal. Here’s a look back at the some of the other controversies that have hit Parliament over the years — some short-lived, some with serious political fallout — and how the players fared in the aftermath.
A telegram, possibly stolen from a safe, spurred the 1873 scandal that took down Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald. During the election campaign the year before, Macdonald sent the message imploring Hugh Allan, who was competing for the contract to build Canada’s national railway, to donate more money to the Conservatives. Allan ended up donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to the campaign. When this was discovered, the opposition Liberals accused Macdonald of accepting the money to guarantee Allan the contract.
“It was out and out corruption,” says University of Toronto history professor Robert Bothwell. “That’s probably the worst example in Canadian history.”
Macdonald fell from grace fast. He resigned as prime minister and the Liberals took power in the election the following year.
But recovery was also swift — Macdonald returned to the prime minister’s seat in 1878 with a majority government, and went on to take three more majorities before his death.
A similar scandal for the Liberals unfolded shortly after William Lyon Mackenzie King lost the 1930 election, becoming the leader of the Official Opposition. It came to light that during the campaign, the Beauharnois Light, Heat and Power Company had given campaign donations to the Liberals in exchange for permission to divert the St. Lawrence River in Quebec to generate hydroelectricity.
“Of all the scandals of that period, it was the one that came closest to being really, really politically significant,” Bothwell says. “(King) managed to slip out of it, but it seriously damaged his reputation.”
Get more of today’s top stories in your inbox
Start your morning with everything that matters in Calgary with our Morning Headlines newsletter.
Nonetheless, King ran again and won a large majority in 1935. He was prime minister for the next 13 years.
In 1966, it came to light that former prime minister John Diefenbaker’s associate minister of national defence Pierre Sévigny had an affair with a woman named Gerda Munsinger several years earlier. It was brought to Diefenbaker as a concern at the time because Munsinger was from East Germany, and was suspected of being a spy, although no evidence was found that this was true.
The episode mixed sex scandal with national security concerns, making for a media frenzy. Diefenbaker’s Conservatives were the Official Opposition when the scandal broke, and a report on the situation found no security breach.
In the fall of 1985, the Chicago Tribune ran a story headlined: “Canada hit by scandal over tuna.”
Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives were in power when CBC’s Fifth Estate revealed that federal oceans and fisheries minister John Fraser knowingly approved a million cans of tuna to be sold in Canada — even though inspectors said they were rancid and “not fit for human consumption.”
Public outcry was swift, but Fraser largely took the fall, resigning shortly after the tuna trouble was revealed. But Mulroney wasn’t immune to the fish fiasco, facing questions about how much he knew about Fraser’s actions and when. At a baseball game Mulroney attended soon after, fans stood to chant “tuna, tuna” at the prime minister, according to news reports at the time.
In the election three years later, Mulroney’s Conservatives won a second mandate and Fraser went on to become the House Speaker.
The Conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper was found in contempt of Parliament in 2011 over cabinet’s refusal to reveal the costs of corporate tax cuts, criminal justice measures and the beleaguered F-35 fighter jet program. Controversy had been swirling for years over Ottawa’s procurement process for F-35 fighter jets.
But in the election later that year, the Conservatives won a majority government. And they stayed in power until the Liberals won in 2015, after an election campaign where the F-35 issue was still a talking point.
Madeline Smith is a reporter/photographer with Star Calgary. Follow her on Twitter: @meksmith